On more than one occasion, I’ve questioned whether my kids have enough toys. Birthday parties and play dates give me a glimpse into the abundance of toys other kids can have compared to my own. And the holidays make me wonder whether I give them enough (or gifts grand enough befitting a parent to give their child). For instance, the past several years, I’ve given them either nothing, or gifts on a smaller scale (think alphabet magnets for Christmas, or a book for a birthday). Do I need to give my kids more toys? Are they lacking in play things to stimulate their creativity, keep them occupied and sort their world through play?

The downside of having too many toysThe recent BBC article “Are children given too many toys?” alludes that they’re not. According to psychologist Oliver James, children don’t need a lot of toys. He says:

Most children need a transition object—their first teddy bear that they take everywhere. But everything else is a socially generated want.

If kids don’t need all these toys, could there then be a downside to having too many?

Perhaps.

Too many toys prevents kids from playing with everyday objects

One of the best ways kids develop their creative potential is to take ordinary items and play with them. No toys, just pots and kitchen spoons turned into a drum set, balls of yarn to toss like a ball, or an empty water bottle to collect dried leaves and flowers outside. Toys enable kids to do this too, but with an abundance of them, kids aren’t as able to explore non-toy materials.

Additionally, many toys already have pre-determined characteristics, so that the Elmo doll—assuming the child is familiar with Elmo on television—has its gender, voice and personality already established long before the child is able to assign her own.

Less toys leads to more cooperation among siblings

Many parents mistakenly assume that providing their children with multiple toys prevents them from fighting. They might think that giving each of their daughters their own kitchen sets will keep the peace.

Yet scarcity actually leads to better cooperation. With limited resources, children are forced to share and create their own system of turn-taking. When kids have too many toys, they miss out on learning to cooperate and instead “mark their territory,” refusing to part or share with their toys.

Of course, it’s important that kids have their own special toys that’s strictly theirs. For instance, my older son has his special toys that we don’t encourage the twins to play with. But the rest of the toys in our house is up for grabs, so that a new toy the twins may have received can easily fall in the hands of our older son, just as he has been quite willing to share the toys he already has with his younger brothers. We try to encourage and model turn-taking rather than a “That’s yours, and this is his” mentality.

Note: Once the twins are older, I’d love to buy a “family gift” for the holidays—one large gift all three of them can use. That will be a good excuse to spend money on one not-so-frugal gift, while hopefully fostering turn-taking and collaboration among them. Parents, have you done this with your families and does it work for you? Any success (or failure) stories you can share?

Less toys means longer attention spans

Thinking that I needed to buy myself some time in the kitchen, I placed several toys in front of my eight-month-old. “That should keep him occupied,” I thought to myself, hoping he doesn’t get bored. Yet I found that the more toys I presented to him, the less time he had to actually explore one toy. I assumed (incorrectly) that he would be bored with just one toy; instead, he couldn’t focus on just one.

Now, I just scatter a few toys around but don’t hand them several toys all at once. With just one or two toys (or none!), they’re not as likely to jump from one toy to the next, and instead can truly examine what they’re holding (or simply observe their surroundings, flip and crawl around, or play with their hands).

Less toys means taking better care of them

When kids know that their toys are limited, they’re more likely to invest the time and care into the ones they have. They won’t waste art supplies knowing how few they have left, or mishandle a truck if it’s the only one in the house. Less toys are simply more precious, which brings me to…

Too many toys takes away the specialness of an item

I love how my four-year-old has a few special stuffed animals, and I seriously think that any more than what he currently has can potentially diminish the specialness he attributes to them. Given a constant stream of stuffed animals, he probably wouldn’t develop deep attachments or use his special toys as transition items.

Too many toys can spoil kids

Although material goods aren’t the only means of spoiling kids, giving unlimited items can encourage a sense of entitlement. We create the norm in our kids’ lives and set the standards for what they should expect. So if we present them with 10 gifts come the holidays, it’s only natural they’re upset or disappointed if they receive five the next.

Constantly giving toys will also prevent kids from understanding the concept of “enough.” Without limits, kids will want more, never having been satisfied with what they already have. It becomes a perpetual cycle, where what we have can’t be good enough if we’re always in the pursuit of more than we have.

Less toys means finding joy in non-materials or experiences

Rewarding kids’ good deeds with toys can send the message that satisfaction is found in material items. Rewards don’t have to involve a trip to the toy store. A simple praise, a hug, or spending time with each other would make many kids happy.

By not emphasizing toys as the ultimate reward, kids can find value with other means, such as their current toys, other household items, games, creative play and hanging out with loved ones.

Too many toys can lead to sensory overload

To the eyes of an infant, everything is new. A trip to the mall—a place you and I can breeze through without a second thought—can seem like a never-ending stream of new things to process. The same can be said of an abundance of toys. With a living room chock-full of toys, babies might tire more easily with so much information to absorb. They may feel agitated, or hardly at rest.

Older kids can feel sensory overload as well. Rather than having down time after a long day, they’re wound up from too many choices, the inability to focus on just one, and the sights, sounds and feelings of toys galore.

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“Too much” or “too little” is of course relative. What seems like enough for me is probably over-the-top for some, just as our toys can appear like a paltry collection to yet other families. Still, my husband and I have been striving to keep toys to a minimum. We give durable, timeless toys, and we teach our son the value of repairing as much as possible.

We also don’t give extravagant gifts; I want our kids to have fun with a simple set of blocks, or a toy guitar. Some of my favorite gifts growing up were the little things—a rubber stamp and ink pad from my sister, a diary.

Above all, we don’t place too much focus on gifts and toys. We view them as tools to having fun, learning, and spending time with others—not a mountain of stuff long forgotten about.

Do you think there is a downside to too many toys? What would you constitute as “too much” or “too little”?

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